Catching up with the photographer behind the iconic Oka standoff photo
It’s one of the most iconic images in Canadian history. It resonates as much today as it did almost a quarter century ago when it landed in newspapers across the country. And yet, for such a famous photo, the story of the photojournalist who took it, Shaney Komulainen, isn’t as well known. Photojournalism editor Mark Taylor interviews Komulainen.
Canadian soldier Patrick Cloutier and Saskatchewan aboriginal protestor Brad Larocque, alias “Freddy Kruger,” come face to face in a tense standoff at the Kanesatake reserve in Oka, Que., on Sept.1, 1990. Photo courtesy of Shaney Komulainen/The Canadian Press.
By Mark Taylor, Photojournalism Editor
It’s one of the most iconic images in Canadian history. It resonates as much today as it did almost a quarter century ago when it landed in newspapers across the country. And yet, for such a famous photo, the story of the freelance photojournalist who took it for the Canadian Press, Shaney Komulainen, isn’t as well known. I recently had the pleasure of catching up with Komulainen to hear how she got (and almost missed) the shot, the effect it had and how that day was the best, and one of the last, shooting assignments of her career.
J-Source: What do you remember about the day you snapped that photo?
Shaney Komulainen: We had been staking out Oka all summer. But I was assigned to the south shore of Montreal that day. I heard on the radio that the army was starting to move on Oka. I was so far away, I was missing it. So I made my way to Oka, the long way around, because the bridges were closed. This was now late afternoon. I had to sneak my cameras under my jacket because there were roadblocks. The police weren’t letting people through so I had to pretend to be a citizen. I didn’t carry a camera bag or anything like that. So when I got into the area, the army had just reached the edge of the pines and was moving forward … there was tension.
J-Source: Were your Spidey senses tingling?
SK: I didn’t need Spidey senses. This was like, “Holy shit, this is happening.” There was lots of other media there. In fact, I had walked in just a few minutes after a really tense, trigger moment. It was when the army was moving into the pine area, which was the original standoff area that they were trying to protect. It was on the edge of their graveyard. I spoke to one of the warriors and he told me when he saw a soldier with his rifle, he was crying. He knew that this may be it. But I was in a good mood because I was getting to the story that I’d been waiting for all summer when I thought I was going to miss it. I look like a goofball on CBC footage; I’m just walking around smiling. There was more than one face-to-face (standoff). I focused mostly on this one because of the baby-faced soldier. He was 19 years old.
Related content on J-Source:
- J-Source launches new Photojournalism section
- Toronto Star Master Glass: How to use an on-camera flash
- Why the fifth estate created an animated documentary
J-Source: So you shot it. Did you know you had “The Shot?”
SK: No. At that moment that’s what was going on and that’s the way it stayed overnight. That picture resonates partly because it’s still like that today all over Canada. Other media shot the incident too and a lot of them used flash. That’s why mine stands out because their flash made a very dark background. I was lucky they (Cloutier and Larocque) weren’t moving. If they were, that picture wouldn’t have worked because it would have been blurred. It was dark enough that I was shooting at 1600 ISO, 1/30 shutter speed at 1.8 aperture. I had to hold steady and hold my breath.
J-Source: What were you using?
SK: Camera Nikon F3 with an 85 mm lens.
J-Source: Did you ever have any contact with Larocque or Cloutier again?
SK: Yes, I talked to Brad Larocque a few times when he was in Montreal. Larocque was an interesting guy. He was a university student. He wasn’t a big troublemaker. He came as an observer and joined the warriors because of the outrage. He was an economics student and he was soft spoken. Cloutier, no.
J-Source: When you consider similar situations like the recent shale gas disputes in New Brunswick or the Idle No More movement, what do you think has changed?
SK: The benefit of Oka was that native issues were on the front pages of papers almost daily where before I barely noticed them. It put native issues on the map. It definitely put a bit of fear of god into the government to some degree. They don’t want to deal with this at that level again. I had coffee with a major after the Oka Crisis. At the time, he told me, we didn’t know if the army would have slaughtered the Mohawks, gone in there with guns blazing if we, the media, hadn’t been there. He said, “If we had native blood on our hands that summer, we wouldn’t have lived it down for 500 years.” That made me realize how much restraint they used. I was really proud of the army because of the restraint. You know, this 19-year-old kid was able to hold his ground and not go crazy, not go in with guns blazing. That was huge. I have a lot of respect for the military that way. The natives were trying to fight for their rights but the army got pulled in. The army didn’t want to be there. This isn’t what they do. And they suffered from this. It fucks people up to have pointed guns at other people, to be under that pressure. Photographers don’t face that kind of tension. You shoot, you ask questions later.
J-Source: Your work at Oka led to new clients and more assignments, and then you got in an accident. What happened?
SK: I was taking a portrait of a Mohawk who had been a warrior. Saturday Night magazine was doing a feature on him and it was my first assignment for them. It was freezing rain and on the way back, my car spun on a hillside just outside of Oka and into the path of an 18-wheeler. My car was ripped in half. Three and half months in hospital because of broken legs. Then two operations. A lot of physiotherapy and a brain that doesn’t behave the way I want it to.
J-Source: While you were recovering in hospital, you were charged following accusations by four soldiers involved in the Oka standoff.
SK: I was charged with criminal offences: Threatening with a weapon, possession of weapon— a machete and a magnum 357, participation in a riot, obstruction of a peace officer. More than some of the Mohawks that were there! I was acquitted. It went to trial. We had over a dozen witnesses and one of them was an army photographer, which was amazing. That’s when I realized the army wasn’t against me, trying to bring me down, or bring the media down. It was just these four soldiers.
J-Source: Who paid your legal fees?
SK: The Canadian Press, which saved my ass because there’s no way my family could afford it. Proving you’re innocent is hugely expensive.
J-Source: You don’t shoot news anymore. How come?
SK: Traumatic brain injury has different effects on different people. News is too demanding. I don’t have the mental stamina to work for very long and very efficiently. I can stand there for 10 hours but I can’t take good pictures for 10 hours. Or wait for the right moment for 10 hours because I don’t have the neurological stamina. I get distracted easily. You have to concentrate on what’s going on. You have to decide when to do things. You have to judge the situation. If I lose that over time, I can’t do the job.
J-Source: So what are you doing these days?
SK: I’ve been involved with palliative care, doing work at a children’s hospice in Montreal. Trying to learn how to video tape. I found a way to use my visual sense on slower-paced assignments that please me and that I can handle. But I’m not set up for the digital world. I have a digital camera but I don’t have the equipment to transmit from location. I occasionally go out for something interesting. And I’ve sold a couple of news pictures because I happened to be on the scene. So I’ve got the news eye still. And if spot news happens in front of me I can try and get something. Sometimes I phone in tips to Canadian Press or the Gazette. I’m still interested.
J-Source: You got a bad break. Are you ever bitter about it?
SK: Not bitter, but I’m grieving. I miss being able to do as much as I could. And when there are really good news stories, I wish I could be there. But at the same time, like when Lac-Megantic was going on, I also knew I’m not capable of something like that, those kind of long days. You come to terms with it. You have to go through the grief. You have to give it up. I wasn’t bitter about the face to face, it was just a sad memory—this was the last picture I took that was worth anything. But I was always proud of it. I did that. I succeeded that day.
This interview was edited and condensed.
Related content on J-Source:
- Toronto Star Master Glass: How to shoot quietly during a funeral
- Toronto Star Master Glass: How to shoot a scrum
- Globe’s John Lehmann named NPAC Photojournalist of the Year